January 15, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Regina King
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Miami on February 25, 1964, the dramatic film “One Night in Miami…” has a predominantly African American cast (with some white people) portraying celebrities, the middle-class and the working class.
Culture Clash: A social gathering of Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown leads to ego conflicts and differing opinions on race relations.
Culture Audience: “One Night in Miami…” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a dramatic interpretation of what it would be like for four of the biggest African American heroes of the 1960s to spend time together as friends and sometimes adversaries.
It’s always tricky to do an entire story about hypothetical conversations between famous people who are well-respected and admired. If handled incorrectly, this portrayal could be considered very insincere or offensive. Imagine doing an entire story about four African American celebrities who, in their own different ways, weren’t just famous but were also inspirations to millions of people. And then you put all of four of them together (Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown) and have them hang out as if they’re old friends.
It happened in real life one night in Miami in 1964, but this story imagines what these four famous men talked about when they spent time together that night. The actors portraying these four friends are Eli Goree as Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X (whose real name was Malcolm Little) and Aldis Hodge as Brown. “One Night in Miami…,” the feature-film directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, mostly succeeds in depicting this compelling story, but it takes a while to get there, since the second half of the movie is much better than the first half.
The movie is based on the play “One Night in Miami…,” which was written by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay. In many ways, the movie still looks like a play, since the second (and more intense) half of the film is mostly set in a hotel. However, the cinematic version of this story does a very good job of bringing a broader scope of locations that can’t be done in a stage play.
The audience is briefly taken into the lives of each of the four central characters to get a glimpse of what they’re like in public before their private selves are revealed later in ways that leave an impact on the characters as well as the audience. It’s a movie where the social cancer of racism is never far from the story, and it’s felt, seen and heard in various ways throughout the movie. “One Night in Miami…” skillfully shows the uncomfortable reality that how to deal with racism can divide African Americans and other people who are targets of racism, because the reality is that not everyone agrees with what it means to have “black power” and how to use it.
The beginning of the movie is essentially a montage of scenes showing why each man is famous and how their race impacts their life’s work. The boastful and charismatic boxing champ known as Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali after he became a Muslim) is shown in 1963 at a boxing match at London’s Wembley Stadium, where he soundly defeats his opponent Henry “The Hammer” Cooper. However triumphant this victory is for Cassius, it’s still shown in the movie that white people are the ones who control boxing and make the most money from it, while the boxers are just pawns in the game.
R&B singer Sam Cooke is shown on stage at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City, where he’s getting a chilly reception from an all-white audience who don’t seem to want a black person to be entertaining them. Some of the audience members leave in disgust while Sam is on stage. Sam performs the Debbie Reynolds song “Tammy” to try to appeal to the crowd, but deep down, he’s fuming at being booked at a place filled with racists.
Backstage in the dressing room after the show, Sam’s white manager tells him, “Boy, you really did bomb tonight, Sam.” Sam explodes in anger and yells, “Have you ever made a million dollars singing? Well, I have! So, until you do, keep your fucking mouth shut!” One of Sam’s backup musicians witnessing this tantrum then says somewhat jokingly about the manager’s comment: “He ain’t wrong though.” Later in the movie, there are cameos from singer Jackie Wilson (played by Jeremy Pope), “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson (played by Christopher Gorham) and “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon (played by Alan Wells) in the depiction of Sam’s life.
Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown is shown visiting a wealthy football benefactor named Mr. Carlton (played by Beau Bridges) at Carlton’s mansion on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. The two men chat amiably on the mansion’s front porch, while Mr. Carlton’s star-struck daughter Emily (played by Emily Bridges) gushes over Jim, as if she can’t believe her luck that this major NFL star is at her home. Mr. Carlton tells Jim that if he never needs anything, don’t hesitate to ask. As Jim starts to follow Mr. Carlton into the house, Mr. Carlton turns to him with a smile and says to Jim that he can’t come in because black people (he uses the “n” word) aren’t allowed in his house.
Malcolm X’s fiery brand of racial ideology made him controversial in the U.S. civil rights movement because of his belief that all white people are the “enemy.” In the beginning of the movie, he’s shown coming home late and telling his wife Betty (played by Joaquina Kalukango) some news that he’s not happy about at all: Louis Farrakhan, a prominent influencer in the Nation of Islam who was likely to become the group’s leader, did not approve Malcolm’s request to leave the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad (played by Jerome Wilson), who was the Nation of Islam’s leader at the time, was like a mentor to Malcolm, who felt some trepidation of being perceived as a traitor.
It’s shown throughout the movie that this story takes place during a time when Malcolm wanted to start his own civil rights group and was grappling with insecurity and anger over how he was being treated by the Nation of Islam. He was feeling doubts about how much loyalty he owed to the Nation of Islam and also concerned about leaving the group because some of his allies could turn into enemies. The movie shows that Malcolm was worried enough that he traveled with security personnel, not just for protection against white supremacists but also for protection against anyone in the Nation of Islam who might come after him for wanting to leave the group.
The rest of the movie is then primarily set in Miami on February 25, 1964. Cassius, who was just 22 years old and soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, wins the world heavyweight boxing champ title against Sonny Liston (played by Aaron D. Alexander), who’s knocked out and gives up in the fight. Sam, Malcolm and Jim (who are in the audience) meet up with Cassius later, and they all go to the Hampton House Motel in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. It’s a motel that allowed African Americans because Miami was still segregated.
The four friends are all in a jovial mood and ready to party. Malcolm has brought a Rolleiflex 3.5 German twin lens reflex (TLR) camera, and he enjoys taking pictures with it. They horse around, almost like fraternity guys, and take turns using the camera. But the mood eventually turns more serious, as insecurities and differences of opinion rise to the surface.
At first, the disagreements are fairly superficial. Sam is disappointed that they can’t stay at a more upscale establishment, and he complains to the others about it. Jim and Cassius, who are bachelors, want to go looking for women to party with, while the married men in the group (Sam and Malcolm) are more hesitant. And as the night wears on, it becomes apparent that each man is at a crossroads in his life.
Jim has plans to retire from football and wants to become a movie star. He already has a Western film lined up, but Cassius scolds Jim for wanting to quit football. Cassius tells Jim that portraying a “sacrificial Negro” in a Western isn’t the same as being paid by the NFL. Sam is more encouraging of Jim’s showbiz ambitions and tells Jim that Los Angeles is like the Promised Land. Malcolm, who lives in New York City, vehemently disagrees with that belief.
Cassius has become close to Malcolm, who has influenced Cassius to convert to Islam and to be more outspoken about civil rights for African Americans. However, Cassius’ manager Angelo Dundee (played by Michael Imperioli) has been pressuring Cassius to distance himself from Malcolm, who is considered to be too radical for mainstream society. Angelo tells Cassius that white investors and sponsors are very nervous about Cassius’ association with Malcolm. It should come as no surprise what decision Cassius makes, because it started a new chapter in his life as Muhammad Ali.
While Cassius looks up to Malcolm as a pillar of strength, Malcolm isn’t feeling very secure about his life because he suspects that he could be in real danger. Malcolm is paranoid that he’s being followed. He frequently looks out the window, and his suspicions are confirmed when he sees strange men lurking about who could be government spies. Malcolm has a trusted bodyguard with him named Brother Kareem also known as Kareem X (played by Lance Reddick), a stoic employee who is accompanied by a younger assistant bodyguard named Cliff White (played by Kipori Woods), who is in awe of Malcolm.
Sam is a successful music entrepreneur (he owns his own music publishing and record label) in addition to being a famous singer. However, Sam is grappling with what it means to “cross over” to a mainstream (mostly white) audience. Will he be perceived as “selling out” and leaving behind his African American fan base? Or is he just making a good business decision to reach as wide of an audience as possible?
It’s this issue of racial integration that sparks a heated and extended argument between Sam and Malcolm. This arguing leads to the movie’s most memorable scenes and impressive performances from Odom and Ben-Adir, while Hodge and Goree sort of fade into the background. Jim and Cassius mostly just stand by and watch Sam and Malcolm verbally rip each other apart, but Cassius and Jim occasionally interject and try to make the peace when things get too problematic.
Malcolm’s choice words for Sam include: “You bourgeois Negroes are too happy with your scraps to really understand what’s at stake here … You will never be loved by the people you’re trying so hard to win over … You’re a monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them!”
Sam then criticizes Malcolm for kowtowing too much to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The R&B crooner also makes a verbal jab at Malcolm by telling him that Malcolm is the only one of the four friends who isn’t as financially successful as the others, thereby implying that Malcolm doesn’t have a real career. It’s a criticism that stings Malcolm because he knows that by leaving the Nation of Islam, he will be leaving behind much of his livelihood for an uncertain future.
Sam also points out that, unlike many black artists, he owns his own work, he invested in buying other artist’s music publishing, and he has the power to hire black people for jobs. “Everybody always talks about how they want a piece of the pie,” Sam declares defiantly. “Well, I don’t. I want the goddamn recipe!”
Jim is more inclined to side with Sam, who believes there’s nothing wrong with racial integration and working with white people. Jim comments on Malcolm’s views that black people need to think like militants: “We’re not anyone’s weapons, Malcolm.” Malcolm replies to Jim, “You need to be, for us to win.”
The issue of colorism is also brought up, as Jim confronts Malcolm about being light-skinned and using his lighter skin tone to his advantage. Jim essentially says that it’s easy for Malcolm to be so militant when his light skin gives him more privileges than darker-skinned black people. Malcolm responds by reiterating that black people’s authenticity should be judged by how black people help other black people, not by skin tone.
Because the characters of Sam and Malcolm have the most emotionally charged dialogue in the movie, Odom and Ben-Adir stand out the most in the film. Odom has the additional talent of doing his own singing in the movie, and his portrayal of Cooke is that of a man with a strong sense of self who’s unapologetic for how he wants to live his life. Ben-Adir’s portrayal of Malcolm X is of a more tortured soul, and the performance comes closer to showing a more human side to the real person. Both performances are outstanding in their own ways, but most people watching this movie, just like in real life, will probably feel more comfortable watching a smooth entertainer like Cooke instead of a restless firebrand like Malcolm X.
The character of Jim Brown is written as a fairly bland and passive person, so Hodge can’t really do much but react to what’s going on around him. However, since Jim is the one who’s the mostly like to be the “peacemaker” in the group, his character is crucial in the moments where the four friends find common ground and have positive interactions with each other. Jim is the “nice guy” of the group, but unfortunately his character also seems two-dimensional. There’s very little indication of what Jim is passionate about, since he wants to leave football behind to become an actor, not for the love of the craft but just so he can become a movie star.
People who know Muhammad Ali as a larger-than-life personality will be surprised to see that he’s not really written as the character who outshines everyone in this movie. Malcolm and Sam definitely upstage everyone else. And that’s because it’s made pretty clear that this boxing champ wasn’t known yet as outspoken activist Muhammad Ali. He was Cassius Clay, a guy in his early 20s who was still finding his identity. Goree’s portrayal of Cassius sometimes veers into a try-hard impersonation that could have devolved into a terrible parody, but he shows enough restraint not to turn the character into an embarrassing caricature.
King’s direction of the movie is solid and gives viewers a clear sense of each location’s atmosphere in each scene. The production design and costume design are well-done, while the cinematography makes the scenes feel observational yet intimate. Although adapting this stage play into a movie results in some extra thrills for the singing and boxing scenes, the movie’s most powerful moments are inside a simple hotel room with just the four main characters. Everything else just seems like frosting on the cake. “One Night in Miami…” is by no means a completely insightful portrait of the four men at the center of the story, but the movie serves as an effective snapshot of what their interpersonal dynamics might have been like in their leisure time together.
Amazon Studios released “One Night in Miami…” in Miami on December 25, 2020, and expanded the release to more U.S. cinemas on January 8, 2021. Amazon Prime Video premiered the movie on January 15, 2021.